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Study Shows Parents' Preference for Healthy Foods Withers When Buying for Kids

New research shows that while parents prefer nutritious foods for the entire family, their preference for healthy foods is about 50 percent weaker when they’re selecting products for the kids, rather than for themselves.

The likely explanation is that parents give in at the grocery store—or before they even get there, in the case of this study—compromising their preferences based on what they believe their children will accept, said study author Irwin Levin. Levin is professor of psychology in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and of marketing in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business.

“Perhaps they think the child won’t eat the healthy option, or they suspect that the child will beg for the unhealthy foods,” he said. “But, when you look at this particular finding in the context of rising childhood obesity, the question for parents to consider is this: You try to eat healthy. Do you want less for your child?”

Levin published the study in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Behaviour with his son, Aron Levin, an associate professor of marketing at Northern Kentucky University.

The study involved 43 7-year-old children and one of their parents (usually the mother), who rated eight combinations of cards displaying food products. They rated each item on a five-point scale indicating how good or bad they thought it was. Kids indicated how they’d feel if their parents bought the product, and parents indicated the likelihood of purchasing the product for themselves and for their children.

Results showed that boys were 20 percent more likely to rate unhealthy products higher, while girls were 20 percent more likely to rate healthy foods higher.

“Other studies have found evidence of this as well,” Irwin Levin said. “There are indications of basic physiological differences—that is, boys require more sweetness to like a food than girls do. It’s possible there is also a cultural effect in play, with the young girls already developing concerns about thinness.”

Brand name proved to be the most important factor for both kids and adults. Familiar brand names were Lay’s, Kellogg’s, Cheerios, and Yoplait, while fictitious names were provided for the other products.

Whether the food was healthy was the second-most influential factor in terms of ratings. Healthy products were low-fat yogurt and plain toasted oat cereal; unhealthy products were potato chips and breakfast tarts.

And, despite the big bucks shelled out for endorsements and licensed cartoon characters, they proved to be the least significant factor. Adults rated products with fictitious endorsements by Tiger Woods (before his personal issues became public), Jay Leno, Adam Sandler, and Katherine Heigl, while children rated products picturing Shrek, Scooby Doo, The Incredibles, or SpongeBob on the package.

“Using popular cartoon characters on the packaging can have some limited effect on children, but promoting healthy eating can be best accomplished when the product is provided by a familiar brand name,” Irwin Levin said. “While SpongeBob can be used to promote healthy eating habits in our children, trusted brands like Kellogg’s and conscientious parents can do even more.”

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to study the development of decision-making competence in children.


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